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Marian Wright Edelman Inspires

01/31/2014

MLK keynote speaker Marian Wright Edelman on stage with Tony Johnson 93 SC, director of Intercultural Student Engagement.

On Wednesday evening, Children’s Defense Fund founder and President Marian Wright Edelman implored RISD students, faculty and staff not just to celebrate the dream and accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., but to keep moving forward in the struggle against poverty and violence in the US. “Our survival depends on tackling child poverty,” she contends. “It has been 50 years since President Johnson declared a war on poverty, and today 46.5 million Americans live in poverty, including 16.1 million kids.”

Edelman, the keynote speaker in this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Series, notes in a quote on the cover of the evening's program that “a lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back – but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you.”

Edelman’s powerful message was underscored by her warm energy and unassuming style. After a series of reverent introductions by Professor Paul Sproll of RISD’s Teaching + Learning in Art + Design department, Interim President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID and Board of Trustees Chair Michael Spalter, Edelman took the stage and spoke of the many ways in which art and music have helped to sustain her and support her life’s work. She’s not comfortable resting on her copious laurels ­– from her Presidential Medal of Freedom to her Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award – but is always “following the need” (in her father’s words) and thinking about how to “keep moving forward,” as King urged.

Edelman worked side by side with King in the 1960s and has helped millions of children in the subsequent half century, yet she remains focused on the present and on shaping the future. She encouraged students to use their creative gift “to move hearts and spirits and get the message out’; to cut through indifference; to challenge wars, materialism and relentless gun violence; to overcome rampant individualism and greed; to eradicate the cradle-to-prison pipeline. War, poverty, violence and underfunded public schools are “not acts of God,” she reminded us, “but choices that we make.”

Before taking questions from the audience and accepting an award from RISD students for her many accomplishments, Edelman concluded her talk by leading the community in song (with the help of Director of Intercultural Student Engagement Tony Johnson 93 SC, one of the event organizers). Singing to the tune of One Man’s Hands by legendary folksinger Pete Seeger, who had just passed away two days earlier and had helped Edelman adapt the lyrics several years ago, the audience joined in as the two sang:

 Just one hand can’t tear the prison down
Just two hands can’t tear the prison down
But if two and two and 50 make a million
We'll see that day come around.

 Just my will can’t beat the NRA
Just your will can’t beat the NRA
But if two and two and 50 make a million
We'll see that day come around . . .

Simone Solondz

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tags: nonprofits, public engagement, social responsibility, diversity

1
RISD has a long history of offering Saturday and after-school classes for children and teens, as this photo from c. 1910 confirms.